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Complexity Science

Complexity Science



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Published by John Michael

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Published by: John Michael on Dec 16, 2007
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial


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A Complexity Science Primer:
What is Complexity Science and Why Should I Learn About It?
Adapted From
 Edgeware: Lessons From Complexity Science for Health Care Leaders
, by Brenda Zimmerman, Curt Lindberg, and Paul Plsek, 1998, Dallas,TX: VHA Inc. (available by calling toll-free 866-822-5571 or throughAmazon.com)
This paper is called a 'primer' because it is intended to be a first step in understanding complexity science. In house painting, the primer or prime coat is not the finished  surface. A room with a primer on the walls often looks worse than before the painting began. The patchy surface allows us to see some of the old paint but the new paint is not  yet obvious. It is not the completed image we want to create. But it creates the conditions for a smoother application of the other coats of paint, for a deeper or richer color, and amore coherent and consistent finish. As you read this primer, keep this image in mind.This paper is not the finished product. Ideas and concepts are mentioned but only given aquick brush stroke in this primer. You will need to look to the other resources in this kit to get a richer color of complexity.
 Complexity science reframes our view of many systems which are only partiallyunderstood by traditional scientific insights. Systems as apparently diverse as stock markets, human bodies, forest ecosystems, manufacturing businesses, immune systems,termite colonies, and hospitals seem to share some patterns of behavior. These shared patterns of behavior provide insights into sustainability, viability, health, and innovation.Leaders and managers in organizations of all types are using complexity science todiscover new ways of working.Why would leaders be interested incomplexity science?In a recent research project with healthcare executives, weuncovered twointer-related reasonsfor the interest:frustration andresonance.
"At first learning about complexity science and what it suggested about leadership was confusing, even stressful. Once I began tolearn it, to understand it, and to discuss it with other  professionals, it began to make sense... I really believe in it... Incomplexity science I'm learning that leaders of modernorganizations have got to take on a different roles - especially inthis health care revolution."  John Kopicki, CEO,Muhlenberg Regional Medical Center, Plainfield, NJ.
There is a frustration with some of the traditional clinical and organizational interventionsin health care. The health care leaders in the study said they no longer trusted many of themethods of management they had been taught and practiced. They didn't believe in thestrategic plans they wrote because the future was not as predictable as it was depicted inthe plans. They saw intensive processes of information gathering and consensus buildingin their organizations where nothing of substance changed. They were working harder and feeling like much of their hard work had little or no impact. Complexity scienceoffered an opportunity to explore an alternative world view. Complexity science held a promise of relief from stress but also suggested options for new interventions or ways of interacting in a leadership role.The second "hook" for health care leaders was resonance. Complexity science resonatedwith or articulated what they were already doing. It provided the language and models toexplain their intuitive actions. By having a theory to explain what they 'knew' already,they felt they could get better leverage from their intuitive knowledge and use it moreconfidently.Although we are in the early days of deliberately applying complexity science inspiredapproaches in organizations, we are gathering evidence of leaders applying the ideas togeneral management and leadership, planning, quality improvement, and new servicedevelopment. Some of the application projects have generated positive results whileothers are still works in progress. Complexity science holds promise to have an importantimpact on organizational performance.
Comparing complexity science with traditional science
Complexity science addresses aspects of living systems which are neglected or understated in traditional approaches. Existing models in economics, management and physics were built on the foundation of Newtonian scientific principles. The dominantmetaphor in Newtonian science is the machine. The universe and all its subsystems wereseen as giant clocks or inanimate machines. The clocks or machines can be explainedusing reductionism - by understanding each part separately. The whole of the machine isthe sum of the parts. The clockware perspective has led to great discoveries by focusingon the attributes and functioning of the 'parts' - whether of a human body or a humanorganization. The parts are controlled by a few immutable external forces or laws. The parts are not seen to have choice or self determination. The 'machines' are simple and predictable - you need only understand the few guiding external rules which determinehow the parts will behave. There are limits to this perspective when understanding livingsystems, and in particular human organizations. Clearly humans are not machine partswithout individual choice and so clockware is a necessary but not sufficient way of understanding complex systems.
The Newtonian perspective assumes that all can be explained by the careful examinationof the parts. Yet that does not work for many aspects of human behavior. We have allexperienced situations in which the whole is not the sum of the parts - where we cannotexplain the outcomes of a situation by studying the individual elements. For example,when a natural disaster strikes a community, we have seen spontaneous organizationwhere there is no obvious leader, controller or designer. In these contexts, we find groupsof people create outcomes and have impacts which are far greater than would have been predicted by summing up the resources and skills available within the group. In thesecases, there is self-organization in which outcomes emerge which are highly dependenton the relationships and context rather than merely the parts. Stuart Kauffman calls this"order for free" and Kevin Kelly refers to it as "creating something out of nothing."Complexity science is not a single theory.It is the study of complex adaptive systems- the patterns of relationships within them,how they are sustained, how they self-organize and how outcomes emerge.Within the science there are many theoriesand concepts. The science encompassesmore than one theoretical framework.Complexity science is highlyinterdisciplinary including biologists,anthropologists, economists, sociologists,management theorists and many others ina quest to answer some fundamentalquestions about living, adaptable,changeable systems.
From physics envy to biology envy
There has been an implicit hierarchy of sciences with physics as the most respectable and biology as the conceptually poor cousin. Physics is enviable because of its rigor andimmutable laws. Biology on the other hand is rooted in the messiness of real life andtherefore did not create as many elegantly simple equations, models or predictablesolutions to problems. Even within biology there was a hierarchy of studies. Mapping thegenome was more elegant, precise and physics -like, hence respectable, whereasevolutionary biology was "softer," dealing with interactions, context and othedimensions which made prediction less precise. Physics envy was not only evident in the physical and natural sciences but also in the social sciences. Economics and managementtheory borrowed concepts from physics and created organizational structures and formswhich tried (at some level at least) to follow the laws of physics. These were clearlylimited in their application and "exceptions to the rules" had to be made constantly. Inspite of the limitations, an implicit physics envy permeated management and organizationtheories.
"I found a lot of what we did [inmanagement] was really dumb. It wasvery impersonal. We treated people as if they were one-dimensional. If you figurethem out, give them strict rules, pumoney in front of them, they will performbetter...it was very linear."  James Taylor  President and CEOUniversity of Louisville Hospital  Louisville, Kentucky

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